It’s not consent if you’re afraid to say no. It’s not consent if you’re being manipulated, pressured, or threatened to say yes. – LoveIsRespect.org
This blog needs to be prefaced with what has colloquially been termed “trigger warning”: I’m going to be touching, at least tangentially, on the idea of non-consentual relations between people, including in a sexual context. If you don’t like hearing about or thinking about this kind of thing, I can respect that, and I suggest you go read something else.
For the rest of us, we’re going to be talking about a pretty hot topic these days: sexual coercion. Consent, or the lack of it. And as nice as it would be for it to be as black-and-white as “yes means yes”, it’s not, at least not for the vast majority of people.
Perhaps I should express my (sometimes unpopular) opinion right out of the gate so you have the chance to click away if you’d rather:
Requiring verbal acknowledgement for every sensual activity presumes the ability and comfort of everyone to express those feelings verbally – and that is a privileged and very narrow-minded view of people.
Sure, it would be nice if everyone could just say “Hey, I would like to kiss you – may I?” and the response was as clear as “Yes, that would be very nice! Please do. Would it be ok to kiss you back?” In reality, pop culture, upbringing, marketing, and good-old-fashioned hormones turn it into something more like:
“Hey, I would like to kiss you but I’m not sure it’s a good idea because you might think I’m a fast girl and even though I find you attractive I have a test in the morning and don’t really have time to do more plus I had garlic on my dinner and besides you might like that tongue thing that I really think is gross unless I’m really turned on in which case it feels different and how dorky is it to ask to kiss? In the movies they just know because the music reaches a crescendo and this EDM doesn’t seem to be anything BUT crescendo…”
to which the response is
“I want to say yes kiss me but that’s all I want to do tonight because I really want to take things slow but won’t she think I’m not attracted to her and then she won’t like me and what if she likes that tongue thing that I really think is gross unless there’s Carmina Burana playing in the background and what if she can tell I’ve only kissed like three girls before her man I wish I’d taken that class on making out.”
Even the common areas of interest are hard to communicate. So instead we have long lingering looks, and brushes and touches and awkward pauses and really, it’s kind of delightful because we have, as a species, communicated with our bodies so much longer than we’ve communicated with speech. Frankly, speech needs to be the icing on the cake, in terms of consent. Because people lie, whether it’s to be nice or to be cool or just to get it over with. If individuals were better at reading body language, there might be fewer “coerced” incidents.
Because it’s entirely possible to coerce someone into some kind of sexual act – and I’m talking all the way from holding hands to intercourse, here – without even realizing it. It’s possible for married couples to coerce each other. It’s possible for total strangers. It’s possible for friends to coerce someone into things they don’t want to do with someone else (spin-the-bottle being a prime culprit, along with “Truth or Dare”).
So if we have to worry constantly about whether that enthusiastic “yes” is genuine, does that mean the death of romance?
No, it means we have to first understand the difference between seduction and coercion.
Yes(+ n)= Yes, except where n= C2H6O
The idea behind seduction is to encourage consent – actual, willing and even enthusiastic consent – by building arousal and interest, not by putting pressure on her to give in. The key word here is “encourage”; he or she may be aroused to the point of bursting but still not want to have sex and that is the end of the matter. As I said in the article: it’s incumbent on you to respect that decision. – Dr. Nerdlove
Personally, I tend to take a rather Zen slant to this idea – that is, I try to be unattached to outcomes and enjoy the moment for what it is, not for what it might lead to. That might work for you, but it also might not. Dr. Nerdlove has it nailed, though, in that last sentence, I think: respect that decision. It’s the art of persuasion, not argument.
Unfortunately, it’s a concept often confused by both genders. In a recent study 40% of males reported being pressured into sex when they really didn’t want it by women. Now, lest you think I’m trying to say “See? It’s not a guy thing!” let me point out another finding of the study:
“It may be the case that sexual coercion by women doesn’t affect males’ self-perceptions in the same way that it does when women are coerced. Instead it may inadvertently be consistent with expectations of masculinity and sexual desire…
In other words, it is not as damaging to self-esteem in the long run as it often is for women. That doesn’t make it any less wrong – it just makes the consequences possibly not as severe.
It should also be noted that alcohol is always brought up in these studies as a factor in coercive situations. While that’s certainly a common element, I believe it’s important to remember that it’s not just alcohol that can affect people’s judgment. Anger, arousal, exercise, excitement, trance, Black Friday, you name it, there are many situations where you know that you are going to be making decisions differently than when you’re lucid.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that I fall into the “personal responsibility” camp of preventing coercive sexual behavior. However, to me that does not mean that someone shouldn’t dress provocatively, drink alcohol, or make off-color jokes in mixed company. No, to me it means that we need to instill a value of consent that isn’t objectified.
That means consent can’t be “given” from one person to another – a concept that has always bothered me, as if we carry around little boxes that we open and dole out to the worthy.
Instead, consent is a dynamic, changing, present thing – where just because I say you can do something, doesn’t meant you have to, and just because you say no now doesn’t mean you’re not free to change your mind later – and change it back again after that. It’s an idea of mutual respect both of the other person and of yourself, free from both personal coercive factors like alcohol and tango music as well as societal coercives such as guilt and shame.
Most of all, you need to be aware of the risk, on both sides. I’m not just talking about new relationships, either – as I said before, coercion happens between long-term partners as well, and possibly more often because they’ve had years to get really good at it. The risk is that you will discover that you are being coercive, or being coerced, without either of you realizing it. What can you do then? Is it possible to forgive, to find a way to change a coercive habit into a habit of creating consent together?
I would think so. But this post is too long already. I’d love to have your thoughts in the comments, and we’ll come back to this another day.